Martha Wainwright has spent much of her life feeling second-rate. She is the daughter of not one but two celebrated folk singers, Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle. Her older brother, Rufus, is the prolific, Grammy-nominated artist who signed to a major label when he was 21. Listen to Martha Wainwright’s own music – where folk meets jazz, pop, punk and poetry – and you’ll hear recurring themes of feeling “less-than... not pretty enough, not famous enough, not thin enough, not good enough,” she says. “And of being the second kid to a sibling who is so confident and so brilliant, and who was so sure of what he wanted.”
The 45-year-old is speaking over Zoom from her home in Montreal. She is relaxed and convivial, dressed in a loose white shirt and distracted only when one of her sons wanders into view to request ramen for lunch. While Rufus’s connection to music “came very naturally”, she says she found it more of a struggle –she didn’t release a debut album until she was 28. “When I went out to LA to sing on Rufus’s [1998 self-titled] album, even though I didn’t want to admit it, deep down I knew that kind of success was not going to happen to me,” she says. “And that made me wonder, what is my story?” She’s been figuring it out, on her own terms, ever since.
Love Will Be Reborn, the Canadian-American artist’s first record in five years, details the aftermath of Wainwright’s divorce from former producer and husband of 10 years, Brad Albetta. Like Wainwright herself, it is almost painfully frank. There were allusions to the approaching storm on 2016’s Goodnight City, the last of her albums produced by Albetta. On that album’s “Before the Children Came Along”, her disorientated singing style is as though you’re hearing her losing control of her life in the moment. “The previous record was laying it all out, seeing this thing burning and falling apart,” she agrees. “Now the thing is still burning but it’s behind [me], and it’s almost like there’s a new city, an emerald city, rising up ahead.”
She moves from her bed to a chair by the window; her camera is switched on because she’s “up for it” today. In the background is a staircase on which her family – her new partner, Nico, and her two sons with Albetta – troop quietly up and down.
After she and Albetta separated, Wainwright assumed that she would be alone forever. “I did everything I could to get laid, with some success,” she says, flashing a grin. Her unabashed candour is something of a Wainwright trademark. “I was a total slut. But really, I was confronted with being in the house alone with the children gone, walking around with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, tears in my eyes, trying to make sure not to finish the whole bottle. It was that kind of loneliness.”
Then the unexpected happened. Wainwright found herself in a new relationship, one that was “very supportive and kind and loving”. This impacted the album, she says, drawing her away from the darkness of Goodnight City. The songwriting on Love Will Be Reborn is as fearless as ever – “It’s my city/ But it’s your style/ To take away my rights/ And change the laws,” she laments on French-language closer “Falaise de Malaise” – but the instrumentation is full of light and hope. “Some of the songs were really quite painful to write, but I didn’t just want to express the worst part of [the divorce],” she says. “I wanted to find grander ideas than just, ‘I hate you’. Also, I have kids, so I have to protect them in some ways.”
“Falaise de Malaise” was born when Wainwright was approached by director Darius Marder, who wanted her to write a song for his Bafta-winning film Sound of Metal. In what she describes as a “classic Martha shooting herself in the foot” story, Wainwright – struggling with the split from her husband – had trouble piecing something together by Marder’s deadline and it didn’t make the soundtrack. “Cut to two years later, and it was the biggest f***ing movie!” she says, berating herself. “I felt like such an idiot.”
Yet the song serves its own purpose on her album, translating her feelings of being “completely powerless” in court and the trauma of going through it all in her hometown of Montreal, where Albetta had encouraged them to relocate from New York: “And the marriage exploded – it was terrible – and then we were stuck here, and it made it hard for us to feel anything good about it.”
There was a point where Wainwright wondered if her relationship breakdown was a symptom of her parents’ divorce. There was a strange parallel to the goings-on in her brother’s life, she says, as he apparently went through custody issues involving Viva, his daughter with childhood friend Lorca Cohen (daughter of Leonard). “Both of us had difficult relationships with the other parent of our kids,” Wainwright says. “We were wondering, why is this happening to both of us?”
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McGarrigle and Wainwright III separated in 1976 but her death from cancer in 2010 brought Rufus and Martha closer together. “It really changed things,” Wainwright says. “We became so close, because no one else in the world knew… We shared this thing, a responsibility for our mum’s legacy and wanting the world to know her even more than they did. We grew up, in a way.”
Together, Wainwright and her brother put together a series of Christmas shows with guests including Boy George, Peter Gabriel and their half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche. It evened the playing field between them: “Our paths have been very different – he’s a workaholic, he really lives and breathes music,” she says of Rufus. “I go days without listening to music, then I get angry and fitful and play something, and that helps.”
It turns out that both siblings received life advice from their friend and fellow musician Chrissie Hynde (she was the one who urged Rufus to move to LA with his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, to be closer to Viva). In 2019, at their Christmas show in London, Martha was “feeling wild, like a feral cat”.
“I hadn’t been on the road in a while, hadn’t made a record for three years and had been dedicating myself to being at home for the children, because I was concerned I’d lose them emotionally,” she says. “I looked pretty good, I was kind of crazed, on fire. And I was singing really well.” She sang with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, who told her she should move to London and pursue her career here: “‘You need to be a star!’” she recalls him saying. But then she spoke with Hynde backstage, who said she should be with her children. “And I thought, she’s totally right. I’m gonna go with Chrissie!”
Love Will Be Reborn has its own family links thanks to its producer, Pierre Marchand, who worked on Rufus’s best album, Poses, and also Kate McGarrigle’s 1990 comeback record with her sister, Anna McGarrigle, Heartbeats Accelerating, which was also about female middle age. “My mother was my age when that record was made, and it’s about children leaving the nest, about losing your parents,” she says. Things tend to come full circle. Marchand was in his early thirties when he produced Heartbeats Accelerating, and Wainwright had wanted to work with him ever since. “A lot of really good producers – they bring out the best in the singer because of the way they make them feel, by making them feel fabulous,” she says. “By stroking the ego somewhat, making you feel good about yourself... that was really important. I needed to put this record in the hands of somebody I trusted completely.”
The result is a sublime album, one of her best. On “Hole in My Heart”, Wainwright’s voice rises to meet a strutting electric guitar and youthful percussion, and it sounds galvanised on “Hole in My Heart”, a song that revels in Mark Knopfler-style licks. Her hair-raising falsetto on the piano-based “Justice” belies the steeliness of her lyrics: “There is new blood running in my veins/ I will capture and take the reins/ And ride on chariots of fire/ To justice,” she sings.
Wainwright believes she’s become better as a musician with age. “It took me a long time to get good on stage,” she says. “I’d smoke a lot of pot or get s***faced – I was really inconsistent. And then, after years, I got good.” I’m inclined to disagree. Wainwright has always been a spectacular singer, perhaps most memorably on her 2005 single, “Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole”, the ferocious rebuke to her father over his habit of writing about his family in songs instead of paying proper attention to them: “You have no idea how it feels to be on your own/ In your own home/ With the f***ing phone / And the mother of gloom/ in your bedroom.”
While Rufus told me last year that his relationship with his father has improved dramatically in recent years (thanks in part to joint therapy sessions and his own experiences of fatherhood), it seems the senior Wainwright – who freely admitted to being jealous of his children’s talents in a 2017 memoir – still struggles to communicate directly with his children.
“I think my dad is incredibly supportive of my music – I honestly believe he thinks I’m quite good and interesting and talented,” Wainwright says. “I don’t know if he’s as kind to Rufus.” She hopes his comment about his own insecurities in the memoir is true. “But a book is not a place to apologise. Or to like, confess, or whatever.” She has a copy of the book on her bedside table but has yet to read it in full, because she’s been working on her own, Stories I Might Regret Telling You, which is due for release next year, after many stops and starts. “I didn’t want [my father’s book] to impact it, and I didn’t want to be annoyed,” she says.
She ended up burning the first draft of her book, while her children now use other versions for scrap paper. “It’s really been the worst thing ever,” she says of the writing experience. “It was so hard – it’s been seven years.” Her first attempt was “not printable”, according to her publisher, so she hired an editor who promptly removed “everything good, which was devastating”. Then came the divorce, and two years went by before Wainwright returned to it. “Before, I was trying to write in the depths of despair,” she says. “It’s not useful. But now we have 80,000 words… I probably wrote 800,000.”
She hopes her children won’t read it – earlier she’d told me they’re “not quiet bookish types”, so it seems she may be in luck. “If I leave them to their own devices, someone will come back with a bloody nose,” she says, grimacing. “They’re like me and my brother – we fought a lot, it was very scrappy. I think one of them really needs to hurt the other to learn the lesson.”
‘Love Will Be Reborn’ is out on 20 August
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